When I first clapped eyes on the house I now live in, many many years ago, it was such a wreck that the estate agent (uncharacteristically honestly) said, “We usually say this sort of property has potential but I can’t see it in this one.” It had been empty for a couple of years, its elderly owner having moved into a care home without redecorating since about 1948. There were velvet curtains that crumbled when you touched them, an interesting array of actual mushrooms growing on the walls in the living room, and a giant buddleia blocking access to the garden. The kitchen was so tiny you could stand in the middle and touch all the walls and you couldn’t turn round unless you backed out first.
But we managed to force the back door and battle past the ivy into the garden, and I saw mistletoe growing on the apple tree. It was December; it was snowing; and if the mistletoe had chosen to live here, I guessed it would work for me too. (I wasn’t always right about that, but I can hardly blame the mistletoe.)
There were four apple trees and a pear tree when I moved in. Two of the apple trees have gone now (one having had the life sucked out of it by aforementioned mistletoe) and one has never grown more than 5ft tall, though it always fruits. But the pear tree and the other apple tree have flourished. This year has seen an especially good crop on both, which is a mixed blessing. In addition to the ones we’ve eaten, the ones we’ll freeze, the ones we’ll juice, and the ones we’ve stored, I’ve used them for cake, herb jelly, windfall cider and (most exciting of all) suet-free mincemeat. I am fast running out of preserving jars (especially following the equally good damson crop), ideas and energy.
Some of the pears went on the top of two pear gingerbread cakes using this recipe from the Kitchn. Unlike most American recipes, it helpfully lists converted measurements for ingredients, which is especially useful if you live in a country that doesn’t sell butter in sticks. It has the most enormous amount of ground ginger in it which worried me a bit, but actually it was just right. I put a lot more pears on top, and took them to a staff training session where I was asked by more than one person for the recipe. So they must have been okay. (Though to be fair, universities run on cake and both students and staff exhibit a Pavlovian response when they hear some is in the offing.)
Pears were also in the mincemeat, along with apples, crystallised ginger, currants, sultanas, almonds, orange zest and juice and a lot of spices. The recipe’s from River Cottage and is completely and utterly delicious. You cook the apples and orange juice to make a puree, then mix in all the other ingredients. Leave it to stand overnight, then bake at a very low temperature for a couple of hours. Add a little alcohol (I suspect you could leave this out if you preferred), then spoon into sterilised jars. That’s it – the hardest work is getting all the ingredients out of the cupboard.
The windfall cider is a classic Lazybones job as the fruit doesn’t need to be peeled, cored or juiced – in fact, I didn’t even have to pick most of them given that it uses windfalls. I follow this recipe. You chop up the fruit into largish chunks, discarding any bruised or rotten bits and evicting any little critters you may come across. Bag them up in 1kg lots, and freeze for at least two days. It’s a good idea to include some unripe ones to give it a bit of body – I pick and add a few of the small green ones from the shady underside of the branches that aren’t going to grow and ripen enough to be good eaters. Once you’ve got enough for your cider, you thaw them out with some water, sugar and yeast. The freezing process breaks down the cells in the fruit and releases the juice when the apples thaw. Hooray! I would say though that the recipe says it’ll be ready in 4-6 weeks. This is true if you don’t mind drinking tasteless fizzy stuff. I prefer tasty still stuff, and in my experience you need to be thinking months not weeks for that. But it’s worth the wait.
The apple jelly is another don’t-bother-to-pick-peel-or-core job. Just chop the fruit as for the cider; I used windfalls again with a few unripe green ones added for extra pectin. Put in a large pan (preferably a preserving pan – I got mine from a boot sale for 50p and they often seem to appear there when people are selling off their mother’s old kitchen equipment), cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for about 40 mins till the fruit is pulpy. Let it cool a little, then pour carefully into a muslin-lined colander over a deep bowl or pan. Once the first rush of liquid has drained through, pour the drained liquid in the bowl back into the washed-out pan. Then tie the corners of the muslin over a long-handled wooden or metal spoon, and suspend it back over the bowl, without the colander. Leave it to drip for at least a couple of hours and longer if you can. Try not to squeeze the muslin: if you do, you will get a cloudy jelly, but it’ll still taste great so don’t worry too much.
Once you’re happy that you’ve got as much juice as you can, add it to the rest, then measure out how much you have and add 450g sugar for every 500ml juice. Apples are usually quite high in pectin but if you want to be on the safe side, you can either swap out some of the sugar for jam sugar or add some lemon juice. Bring it to the boil and boil hard for about 15 mins, then start to test for setting. Be aware that it can take a lot longer or a little longer, depending on the amount of pectin in the fruit, so be patient if it’s not setting – mine took almost 30 mins. Once it’s reached setting point, skim any scum off the top. This produces about 2 litres of liquid jelly. Ladle into sterilised jars.
You can stop here and you’ll have lovely apple jelly to spread on hot toast, but to make a flavoured jelly as an accompaniment for savoury dishes, you will need to go one step back and add the flavouring when you add the sugar. Sage, rosemary, mint and chilli are all good. I suspect you could make something very interesting with star anise, but I haven’t tried it. You could also add some cider vinegar as replacement for some of the juice to make the jelly more tangy, but I wanted these ones sweet. I used fresh chopped sage from the garden for half of the batch to go with roast pork, chops and sausages, and dried chilli flakes (actually Korean gochugaru because I have an enormous bag bought to make kimchi before the courgettes failed to flourish, but any dried chilli flakes are fine) for the other half to go with everything. You need about a teaspoon of whatever you use for each 500ml juice. You can add more for a stronger flavour, but don’t go too mad because the liquid will reduce and any dried herbs will expand. Give the jelly a quick stir with a teaspoon once it’s in the jar to distribute the herbs, then top with a waxed disc and screw the lid on.
Here’s the chilli jelly being delicious with feta and spinach pie and Greek salad, but it’s especially good with cheese… or anything actually. I might have to make some more. Good job I’ve still got a few apples… or a few hundred.